Jerry Hansen leaned over the glass display case filled with old railroad paraphernalia on the third floor of the Ivinson Mansion, diligently moving his fingers to reconnect the pieces of a model railroad track, before attempting to reconnect the wheels to the bottom of a yellow wooden coach car.
For Hansen, the train is more than a toy. He recently used it to teach people about one of his life-long passions — the railroad, which runs parallel with his other passion: history.
Hansen, a Laramie Plains Museum volunteer historian and railroad enthusiast, said he spends several hours — four days a week — going through old photographs looking for clues about Laramie’s history.
“You can really tell a lot about photographs from all the background stuff,” Hansen said. “That is what I look for, especially the buildings in town or streets.”
The Laramie Plains Museum has a closet of boxes filled with thousands of pictures donated to the museum, he said. Each of the photos the museum accepts are scanned, placed in a protective sleeve and given a number that corresponds to a digital copy.
“Usually when people pass away, their kids bring these photographs in and they could care less about those pictures,” Hansen said. “They don’t know anything about them or who is in them or anything, so all the names are lost. Sometimes, I can recognize people and find their names but most of the time, we can’t do that and it gets frustrating not being able to do that.”
Hansen said his interest in Laramie’s history stemmed from learning about the railroad. Volunteering at the Laramie Plains Museum gives him an opportunity to learn more about the city while helping the community.
“I want to find out what went on in different periods of time,” Hansen said.
Currently, the information Hansen gathers helps those wanting information to learn more about the area’s past for city, county or educational use.
“The other day, a student from the university came down and wanted to find out about (an old residential hall),” Hansen said. “I found out the information for that, we looked at photographs and showed them where it was.”
The desire to know more about trains came from growing up in a family filled with railroad workers. Hansen said he wanted to learn all he could about the railroad from an early age, he said.
As a kid, Hansen would go to the railroad yard and climb on the trains as they drove around the yard.
“Almost everybody that I was connected with worked for the railroad at one time or another,” Hansen said. “My grandfather was a switchman down in the yards. He started in 1896 and worked till 1942 … and my dad started in 1929 and he worked until (about) 1970.”
Hansen’s love of the railroad continued as an adult and he learned more about the industry by reading accounts from early days in Laramie and working as part of a crew that placed de-railed trains back onto the tracks.
“I have read a lot of books, railroad books and other books about town, and newspapers have a lot of information in them,” he said. “My grandfather worked on the railroad as a switchman, and there are quite a few articles about him in the newspapers.”
Along with preserving the photos in the museum’s archives, Hansen said he was part of a team that tried to help show the city’s history by creating a list of what shops were in the town and what they were replaced by and when.
“I always wanted to have people go back and see what was in these buildings back when the town was young,” Hansen said. “We started a map project and we started in 1875 and went up through 1949, and it got so mind boggling of all the different businesses that were in the stores and everything.”
Laramie Plains Museum Executive Director Mary Mountain said having volunteers such as Hansen is important to not only providing services through the museum but also keeping Laramie’s history alive.
“Jerry is one of those quiet heroes that volunteers for us like it’s a job,” Mountain said. “This place was saved by this community and it is kept going by people who stepped up and volunteers who just give up their time.”